From school books to publishing, black girls deserve better representation

Black and mixed ethnicity girls are more likely to read than any other ethnic group. So why are there so few books for them?

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As a child, I remember spending most nights sneaking on my bedside lamp so I could stay up reading past bed time. I would do this at home, at sleepovers, and occasionally, when I could get away with it, in class. I found books feverishly difficult to put down, prone to obsessively repeating the mantra, “just one more page".

Findings from a 2014 study by the National Literacy Trust show that black and mixed ethnicity girls between the ages of eight and 18, girls like I was, are more likely to read than any other ethnic group in the UK. Over 50% claim to read outside of class every day, and they’re also more likely to have a favourite book. An impressive 16% of black girls polled responded that they had read over ten books in the past month, something I imagine I could have also claimed quite comfortably a decade ago, but would find it impossible to admit to since reaching my twenties.

My old fervour for reading has waned in adulthood. I can speculate why this is: where some read books to escape into other worlds and other people, I’ve always preferred books that reflect what’s local, what I know and relate to. But as a black girl, and now woman, books rarely serve as a mirror for my experiences.

While themes of friendships, school, puberty, addictions, sex and other teenage anxieties were present and relatable in many of the books I read when I was younger, race was not. There were few black girls in my books. I was lucky if I could find them in the coveted position of the protagonist’s best friend, a blue moon rarity to find them as protagonists is their own right. Yet these are the girls who are meant to read the most. It seems strange, then, for them to be so underrepresented on the page.

Even in class texts, black girls are nowhere to be found. The new GCSE English Literature curriculum, exams for which will be sat for the first time in 2017, has washed black girls out of the classroom altogether. The curriculum change removed works written by authors outside the British Isles and now explores a diverse range of British narratives, including more additions of ethnic minority protagonists. There is British-Punjabi schoolgirl Meena, from Meera Syal’s Anita and Me, as well as Harrison, a black Ghanaian boy who migrates to England in Pigeon English. Yet these books, whilst serving as a refreshing acknowledgement of some of Britain’s underrepresented youth demographics, have come at the expense of stories with black girls.

Gone from the curriculum is Nigerian teenager Kambili from Purple Hibiscus. Gone is the black Aboriginal family from Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, whose daughters are forcibly removed from their families for being mixed-race. Where once the curriculum included the poetry of African-American writer Maya Angelou, now there are no works of fiction written by, or centring, black girls and women. From Britain or elsewhere.

This disappearance is not only felt within the classroom, but through multiple facets of the UK literary landscape. In a report published by Danuta Kean, titled ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Marketplace’, children’s author Malorie Blackman is quoted as saying “over the last three or four years, I seem to have gone back to being the sole face of colour at literary or publishing events”. In the same study, 97% of literary agents asked how culturally diverse the UK publishing industry is responded with either “a little diverse”, or “not diverse at all”. None responded positively that the landscape was “quite diverse” or “very diverse” when polled. That black girls are devouring more books than any other demographic their age is not reflected within the publishing industry.

Perhaps it is no wonder that black girls are so adept at combing through books. Our capacity for imagination is nurtured through practice, as we must imagine that we exist on the page where in reality we don’t. It makes no sense for the publishing industry not to cater to a demographic that is more likely to read often a case of not quite biting the hand that feeds, but smiting the girls who read. Creating a landscape so lacking in black girls that they have to read more just to increase the odds of seeing themselves reflected is a truly cheap trick, and it’s one narrative I hope to see ending soon.

Varaidzo is an essayist working in film and the arts. She is an editor at gal-dem.com and tweets @veedzo

This piece is part of the New Statesman's Literacy Week.